“I was swimming with millions of babies in a rainbow, and they was naked, and then all of a sudden I turned into a perfect smile.”

A woman is singing a song about the virtue of virginity at the Palace when head honcho Greaser’s son Lamie Homo freaks out, getting himself shot dead for interrupting the entertainment. Soon “Jessy” parachutes into the Western movie, resurrects Homo, and goes about impressing everyone with his magic tricks such as walking on water and bleeding from his hands. Meanwhile, a woman wakes up finding her husband and son (cameo by six-year-old Robert Downey Jr.) dead, then loses all her worldly possessions and gets shot a bunch of times, crawling through the desert with no water. It all seems like it might be a metaphor for something.

The son and the holy ghost:

I didn’t get all the metaphors, though – Hervé “da plane” Villechaize is married to a bearded guy in a dress, Greaser has a constipation problem, Jessy’s entertainment agent walks around the desert as if underwater, characters are named Cholera, Coo Coo and Seaweedhead. On one hand it seems like a fun bit of anarchy – the movie can have a Monty Python-like comic sensibility – but if you check the web you’ll find articles willing to draw biblical connections to every last detail. Downey himself underplays it: “The idea of the trinity of the father and the son and the holy ghost parachuting into a western to get it right this time is all I went with.”

Jesse and Herve:

I’ve seen my share of mad westerns – Straight to Hell, The Last Movie, The Shooting – but this one played more like El Topo, seemed more desperate and dangerous than your usual movie, but never without a script and a plan. Unfamiliar cast – Allan Arbus (who’d later play director Gregory LaCava in a W.C. Fields bio-pic) as Jesus, Albert Henderson (of Serpico and Big Top Pee Wee) as Greaser, his main gal was Luana Anders, a Corman actress who followed Nicholson to Easy Rider and The Last Detail, and the Agent Morris was Don Calfa of Return of the Living Dead.

D. Carter:

Jessy is a meeker version of Christ, clear in his intentions but unsure how to accomplish them. … He is a showman, not a messiah or prophet. Walking on water and raising the dead are part of his “act,” and he only reluctantly offers the people advice after he is shown a picture of the Last Supper, calling into question whether Downey intended him to literally represent Christ or merely a Christ-like figure—though it’s most likely a cheeky attempt to obscure any deliberate meaning. Inspired by the image, Jessy comes up with the idea to tell the townspeople of a malevolent force called “Bingo Gas Station Motel Cheeseburger With A Side Of Aircraft Noise And You’ll Be Gary Indiana” living outside of the town, while reassuring them that he has interceded on their behalf because he believes them to be good people. It is a humorous analogue to the Christian belief of Christ’s intercession with God to save believers from Hell, but one that implies that belief is nothing but a parable intended to give people comfort.

“If ya feel, ya heal”

What was initially announced as Auteur Completion Month is now the longer-term Auteur Completion Project (because it can’t be “completion” if I give up when the month changes). I don’t especially aim to watch everything Mel Brooks has been involved with (never saw Dracula: Dead and Loving It because his previous two were so bad) but I noticed that his one classic-era comedy feature (oops, besides The Twelve Chairs) I’d never seen was the one Jonathan Rosenbaum placed on his 1000 favorite movies list. And now that I’ve seen it, I must conclude that it was a half-remembered nostalgic favorite for JR, not one that received much recent, critical thought.

Starts off unpromisingly, with a jokey Orson Welles voiceover (the year before Slapstick; maybe the great man should’ve hired an agent) and a hokey caveman sketch starring 50’s comedian Sid Caesar (whose last movie to date was Stuart Gordon’s The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit). Catalog of human innovation (“the first artist… the first art critic!”) like one of those punny water-treading late Tex Avery shorts, or a sub-Mr. Show sketch (“man’s greatest achievement: the wheelbarrow”).

Some biblical business follows (including my favorite gag, the 15… 10 Commandments). Next: waaay too much time (over half the movie?) spent in Rome running away from Emperor Dom DeLuise, Empress Madeline Khan and 50’s comedian Shecky Greene.

L-R: possibly Ron Carey (Silent Movie, High Anxiety), maybe Mary-Margaret Humes (of an upcoming Michael Madsen/Roddy Piper horror film), definitely Gregory Hines (in his first film), and grimacingly Mel Brooks. I didn’t take very good notes.

Making up for the overlong Roman piece is an extended, extravagant musical version of the Spanish Inquisition, which could’ve stood on its own as a great short film. By now, narrator Welles has wandered away from the movie, off to film some Moby Dick closeups of himself.

Then Brooks is King Louis XVI of France, and also the piss-bucket boy chosen to replace him in event of a revolution. He helps the daughter of a deranged, imprisoned Spike Milligan free her father and… hell, I can’t remember the storyline, but it involves Harvey Korman (Lord Love a Duck, voice of the Great Gazoo on The Flintstones) as a character named Count De Monet, and in my second favorite joke of the movie, Brooks tries to run down a forced-perspective hallway.

Bunuel did it first:

“Coming attractions” finale features a cute Jews In Space trailer, a premonition of Spaceballs.

Cameos by Moon Over Parador director Paul Mazursky, Diner director Barry Levinson, Hugh Hefner as himself, freshly Oscar-nominated John Hurt as Jesus, Jackie Mason, and an uncredited Bea Arthur.

Jacob has many kids. His favorite son was killed by animals (bible scholar Katy tells me he’s not really dead) so Jacob is in mourning. King Hamor’s son wants to marry Jacob’s daughter Dina (after kidnapping/raping her), but Jacob’s not responding to requests nor is he acknowledging any of his children. Meanwhile, his brother Esau is lurking with his warriors. Jacob’s sons kill all of Hamor’s people (including Dina’s would-be husband) and there’s gonna be a three-way showdown, but Jacob comes to his senses in time and his clan goes off to Egypt where they’ll presumably find his not-dead son.

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I also dug the flashback stories in the middle… and Jacob’s climactic nighttime battle with God. There’s lots more that I did not get. Found the movie hard to follow, but I think a passing familiarity with the bible (maybe the book of genesis) would’ve helped some. Was nice to watch anyway, with all the great desert locations, color-coordinated outfits and completely decent actors, a welcome change from the film-fest screeners that have become my constant sorrow.

Albino musician Salif Keita, whose music I’m not all that into:
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Of the lead actors, Salif Keita (Esau) is better known as a musician (he composed for Yeelen), Sotigui Kouyaté (Jacob) and Fatoumata Diawara (Dina) costarred in Sia, the Dream of the Python a couple years later in Burkina Faso, and Balla Moussa Keita (Hamor) appeared in Sissoko’s Guimba the Tyrant and a bunch of Souleymane Cissé films including Yeelen. Hamor is also the guy I would least recognize if I saw him again, unless he was wearing that coiled-white-tube getup.

Jacob:
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Helpful bit from the distributor: “Based on the book of Genesis, chapters 33-37, the film follows the bitter rivalry between brothers Jacob and Esau and the resulting cycle of violence, with Sissoko mixing relevant allusions to African history and culture into the Biblical tale.”

NY Times called it confused and rambling. “Complicating matters is the involvement of Hamor, the leader of the Canaanities, when his son Sichem abducts Jacob’s daughter Dina (Fatoumata Diawara) and rapes her, then falls in love with her. In the most disturbing scene, a temporary peace is negotiated when Hamor accedes to Jacob’s demand that the Canaanite men be circumcised, and the obedient Canaanites glumly line up to be circumcised by a knife-wielding blacksmith.”

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Sissoko: “In the Bible, there is a fraternity which does not stop conflict: we love one another and we fight. This is more and more apparent in the world today, in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and in northern Mali. The same enmities existed amongst the patriarchs of the three great monotheistic religions. … In our farming and herding societies, people reinforce the rivalry between the nomads and farmers: the situation is analogous with that at the beginning of time.”

Movie was written by a French theologist. Sissoko only made one film after this then became Mali’s minister of culture. According to wikipedia, he’s off the government payroll as of late 2007, so maybe there’ll be another film soon.

Katy, here’s the link I told you about.